One weekend in that tumultuous year 1968 I was on call at a parish church outside of Baltimore. At the end of my Sunday Mass I came into the body of the church to make my thanksgiving, and as I knelt in the pew I noticed that the pulpit from which I had preached had on its front a banner with the inscription “God is other people.” If I had had a magic marker within reach, I would not have been able to resist the temptation to insert a comma after the word “other.”
The two forms of the inscription, with and without the comma, sum up two opposed tendencies in contemporary liturgical piety. For present purposes I shall call them otherworldly and this-worldly. For the sake of clarity I shall draw the contrast rather baldly, verging on caricature, while recognizing that less extreme positions are more normal. My immediate concern is with the Catholic situation, but I believe that my arguments apply, mutatis mutandis, in other Christian traditions as well.
For the otherworldly Catholic, liturgy is made in heaven. Given by God, it is received by the Church, which has no power to make substantive changes or substitutions. The ritual is sacred and inviolable. The faithful of any age or place must adapt themselves to it, rather than adapting it to their tastes, interests, or capacities. The celebration should elicit a sense of numinous awe in the presence of the holy, the totally other. God is remote, utterly transcendent, and we sinners are unworthy to stand in his presence. Liturgy is the principal bond between the earthly and the heavenly Church, a frail human participation in the glorious heavenly liturgy. In its official worship the Church achieves its prime purpose, to glorify God. There is no need for the words and gestures to be understood by the members of the assembly.
For the this-worldly believer, on the contrary, successful liturgical practice is a matter of feeling and self-expression. When the community assembles, it should celebrate its religious experience, thereby intensifying and solidifying it. The worshipers may be confident that as they seek to do so they will be assisted by the indwelling Spirit and will be constituted as Church.
In this second perspective, the members of the assembly are urged to find God not in some supercelestial realm beyond space and time, but here and now in the members themselves. Liturgy, it is held, exists for the sake of the worshipers, and only by helping them to sort out their experience and to become “fully alive” does it glorify God. The style of worship is to be tailored to the particular community so that the worshipers may be motivated to build the Kingdom of God here on earth.
To point up the contrast one may say that in the first view, the liturgy makes the Church and in the second, the Church makes the liturgy. In the first view the members of the Church simply receive what the liturgy has to give. The conduct of the ceremony is entrusted to a divinely ordained hierarchical priesthood, which has responsibility for the strict observance of the prescribed rites. In the second view, the liturgy is produced by the people. The congregation is the responsible agent, and the ministers its delegated representatives. In the first view the sacraments are efficacious ex opere operato; in the second, ex opere operantis. In the first view the attention of the assembly is directed to the objective mystery of God’s saving work in Christ; in the second view, worship must be made relevant to the actual situation. In the style of worship, the first favors formality, the second spontaneity.
The two points of view clash on any number of issues that have been hotly disputed in the past thirty years. For example, there are problems about the design and furnishings of the space. Should there be a sanctuary, an altar rail, a prominent tabernacle, sacred images? Should the people be seated in pews with kneelers, or in chairs arranged in a crescent or circle? How should the ministers be vested? Should the celebrant face the people during the Eucharistic prayer, or should both priests and people be turned eastward toward the coming Lord?
There are further disagreements about bows, genuflections, and the proper posture for Holy Communion. Should the communicants stand or kneel? Should they receive in the hand or on the tongue? Should Holy Communion be preceded by a confession of sins and fasting? Should the reserved sacrament be adored? Should it be exposed for veneration? Should lay people, including women, be allowed to minister at the altar and distribute Holy Communion?
Other debates revolve more about the service of the word. Should the rite begin with an informal greeting? Should the homily be an authoritative word or a sharing of personal faith experiences? Are dialogue homilies permissible? Should the celebrant be bound strictly to the approved texts or be encouraged to extemporize? Should preference be given to the Roman canon above the other authorized eucharistic prayers? Should the use of Latin in the Roman rite be maintained, increased, or eliminated altogether? What principles should govern the translations of the sacramentary and the lectionary into English?
It would be possible to lengthen this list considerably by speaking about other matters, for example, sacred music. What of Gregorian chant, polyphony, and country music? What of pipe organs and guitars? These and other areas of controversy are all too familiar to most worshipers.
There is, in all this, great potential for polarization. Liturgy is a flash point in the culture wars. Partisans of the two tendencies frequently criticize each other in harsh and polemical terms. The advocates of otherworldly liturgy accuse their adversaries of destroying the sense of the sacred, of departing from Catholic tradition, and of lapsing into a vapid congregationalism. The this-worldly school accuses its opponents of turning the Church into a museum piece, of perpetuating a mythical worldview, and of resisting the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
Each party blames the other for the decline of Mass attendance and the failure of the Church to attract the young. One group holds that modern Catholics are disgusted by the tasteless experiments and pedestrian language currently in use; the other insists that the laity are repelled by a petrified liturgy that is tied to a vanished civilization and removes the Church from active participation in the modern world.
Needless to say, the actual positions of most Catholics do not correspond precisely to either of these two types. An extremist at the otherworldly end of the spectrum would probably join some “traditionalist” movement like that of Marcel Lefebvre and thus end up outside the Catholic Church. An extreme this-worldly outlook would take a person along the path followed by Matthew Fox, who left the Catholic communion because he found it unreceptive to “creative spirituality.”
The extreme positions, nevertheless, have a certain inner consistency. The mediating positions, in comparison with them, tend to be weak compromises. Those who elect to stand nearer to the center risk incurring the wrath of both extremes. “Would that you were either hot or cold,” they say. Must a mediating position, in seeking to do justice to both sides, be a bag of contradictions that in the end satisfies no one?
I propose that we look to tradition as a principle of discernment in sorting out these matters. That proposal, I realize, is not without difficulty. The term “tradition” might seem to be unsuitable for mediation because it has already been coopted by extreme conservatives, who use it, as did Lefebvre, to denounce even the moderate reforms of Vatican II.
Tradition, however, need not be understood in traditionalist terms. Some liberals have held that Vatican II overcame a rigid, ossified concept of tradition and made it possible to understand tradition in a new light, as a principle of growth and change. This response, however, raises yet another difficulty. The concept of tradition, some object, can be of no help because the battles about tradition simply reproduce on another level the battles about liturgy itself. To invoke tradition is to shift to a new battlefield no more promising than the first.
While recognizing the force of this objection, I would refuse to surrender without an effort. It is possible, I believe, to show that the concept of tradition, as understood in common speech, in biblical usage, and in normative Christian documents, is not so arbitrary. It implies at least three things—a giver, a gift, and a recipient. Tradition passes on some reality or idea between two poles. The content (or the traditum) is that which the giver has to give and the receiver can receive. By its very nature, therefore, tradition mediates between two extremes, bringing them into unity.
Tradition, insofar as it takes place in history, binds together past and future. It has been called the living past. Jaroslav Pelikan brilliantly clarified the difference between tradition and traditionalism when he called tradition “the living faith of the dead” and traditionalism “the dead faith of the living.” If the gift perishes in the process of transmission, it becomes the dead past, a mere memory. The faith of the dead, if it is to live, must take root in the minds and hearts of those who receive it. Thus tradition, by its very nature, demands attention to the recipient as well as to the gift and the giver.
Liturgy and tradition are not synonyms, but they are closely connected. Tradition is more extensive than liturgy, since, even in the Church, there are other forms of tradition—devotional, doctrinal, catechetical, spiritual, and canonical. Liturgy, however, is recognized as a prime instance of tradition. It was described by Bishop Bossuet as the principal instrument of the Church’s tradition.” According to Dom Prosper Guéranger, one of the founders of the modern liturgical movement, “The liturgy is tradition itself, at its highest power and solemnity.” Yves Congar makes these words his own and affirms that “liturgy is the privileged locus of tradition, not only from the point of view of conservation and preservation, but also from that of progress or development.” What is true of tradition must therefore hold for liturgy. Although liturgy does not coincide with the entirety of the Christian life, the whole life of the Christian should be permeated by the spirit of the liturgy.
Liturgy is described in official documents as the Church’s prolongation of, and participation in, Christ’s priestly office. This description is valid so far as it goes, but I regard it as incomplete. In the liturgy, as the public action (leitourgia) of the Church as such, Christ exercises his threefold office as prophet, priest, and king. In celebrating the liturgy the Church participates in the worship offered by Jesus and at the same time proclaims God’s wonderful works and furthers the establishment of the Kingdom. Insofar as it is worship, liturgy has a priestly aspect, but it is not reducible to worship alone. Under a second aspect it is a participation in the prophetic office of Christ, who addresses his people by word and gesture. Under still a third aspect, thanks to the active presence of the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit, liturgy serves to transform the old world into the new creation. It gives fresh actuality to the fruits of Christ’s Paschal mystery.
The concept of tradition, as currently understood in theology, includes a number of characteristics that might be significant for the reform and renewal of the liturgy. Presupposing a more thorough study of tradition that cannot be repeated here, I shall briefly summarize ten of these characteristics.
1. Tradition has a divine origin. God is the principal transmitter, the first tradens or traditor. Christian tradition arises from the action by which the Father handed over his Son for the redemption of the world (Romans 8:32; John 3:16). Without this initiative of the Father everything else in Christian tradition would collapse.
When God acts in history, he does not act alone, but makes use of human agency. Mary, Judas, Pilate, and Jesus in his humanity were involved in very different ways as instruments in bringing about God’s supreme redemptive act.
2. Tradition is Christic. Christ goes willingly to his death, surrendering himself for our redemption. Even before his betrayer turned him over to his enemies, Jesus gave himself to his disciples with his own hands. He really hands himself over under the appearances of bread and wine, broken and poured out for our salvation. He instructs the disciples to take, eat, and drink, thus completing the ritual transaction. Having united the disciples to himself, Jesus sends them into the world to proclaim his message and carry on his ministry.
3. Tradition in the theological sense is also pneumatic. Bowing his head before he died, Jesus handed over the Spirit (John 19:30). In a later incident, when the risen Jesus breathes upon the apostles, their reception of the Spirit is mentioned (John 20:23). From these texts in combination it seems clear that the sending of the Spirit into the hearts of the faithful pertains constitutively to tradition in its theological meaning.
Because of this pneumatic dimension, tradition in the Church is normally epicletic. At the liturgy, at councils, and on other solemn occasions, where the tradition has to be authoritatively passed on, the Church invokes the Holy Spirit, through whom the living Christ continues to give himself actively to the Church. Thanks to the involvement of the Holy Spirit, tradition has a living actuality that prevents it from being a mere hearkening back to the past. Congar has written many pages on the Holy Spirit as “the transcendent subject of tradition.” The Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky defines tradition as “the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.”
To summarize these first three points we may say that tradition in the theological sense, and hence in the liturgy also, is trinitarian. In the words of Jean Corbon, “The Father gives himself through his Son in his Holy Spirit.” In a fuller explication he writes:
The passionate love of the Father for human beings (John 3:16) reaches its climax in the passion of his Son and is henceforth poured out by his Spirit in the divine compassion at the heart of the world, that is, in the Church. And the mystery of tradition is this joint mission of the Word and the Spirit throughout the economy of salvation; now, in the last times, all the torrents of love that pour from the Spirit of Jesus flow together in the great river of life that is the liturgy.
4. Tradition in its Christian reality is apostolic. The traditionary acts of the divine persons are prolonged and concretized in history by the actions of the apostles and their successors, who pass on the living memory of the Paschal mystery in the normative language of Scripture and the early creeds. Paul reports that he has received from the Lord and passed on to the Corinthians the narrative of the institution of the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:23). A little later in the same letter Paul uses once more the technical language of tradition (1 Corinthians 15:3) as giving authority to his account of the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. The kerygma is not a private message; it is the revelation entrusted to the apostolic body.
The apostolic tradition at its core is liturgical, as the example of the Eucharist serves to indicate. Baptism, likewise, is a prime instance of tradition. By the passing on of the creed the bishop entrusts to the candidate the heritage of the Church, and by echoing the creed the candidate gives assurance that he or she possesses the faith necessary to become a bearer of the tradition.
5. Tradition takes place through symbolic acts and gestures as much as through words. The sacrament of baptism has been called “the kerygma in action.” The mystery of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection is transmitted by the immersion of the candidate into the baptismal waters. The use of specially blessed water recalls Old Testament events such as the Flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the striking of the rock by Moses (1 Corinthians 10:1-4; 1 Peter 3:20-21) as well as Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan. More proximately the immersion recalls the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord. The threefold immersion transforms the rite into a proclamation of the Triune God, according to the baptismal precept of Matthew 28:20. Having been washed in the blood of the Lamb, the neophytes don the white garments of righteousness (Revelation 7:14), thus signifying their induction into the new creation. At the Eucharist, likewise, the action proclaims the death of the Lord with a view to his glorious return (1 Corinthians 11:26). The offering of the elements, the breaking of the host, and the eating and drinking are charged with Christological meaning.
Vatican II mentioned worship as one of the means by which the Church “perpetuates and hands on to every generation all that she is and all that she believes.” In the liturgy, as elsewhere, Maurice Blondel’s observation holds:
Tradition in the Church will, thus, not be just a few unwritten truths transmitted by word of mouth, but in a quite special way the Church’s ordinary life, its way of acting, its structures, discipline, sacraments, prayer, its faith as lived through the centuries.
For the process of tradition to succeed in its liturgical enactment the participants themselves must be actively engaged. James Hitchcock has made the point effectively:
Habits of prayer and devotion are fostered and kept alive not only through verbal or mental prayer but also through what might be called “muscular memories”—familiar ritual gestures which summon up for the actor a range of implicit beliefs. Genuflecting before a tabernacle or making the sign of the cross with holy water on entering a church are examples of this. So also is the fingering of rosary beads. Such actions have religious meaning even without conscious reflection, because they operate on a deeper level of the mind.
6. The preferred language of tradition is itself suggestive and symbolic. Jesus taught not so much by clear doctrinal declarations as by stories, parables, and symbolic actions. In the New Testament as well as in the Old, faith is transmitted through “songs, hymns, and inspired canticles” (Colossians 3:16). Scholars have judged that many of the great Christological hymns in the Pauline letters, in the Letter to the Hebrews, in John’s Gospel, and in the Revelation of John have their matrix in the liturgy. Pliny in his letter to Trajan informs the emperor that the Christians at their liturgy were singing hymns to Christ as to a god. The ancient creeds fitted into the liturgy because they were rhythmic, poetic, and able to be sung. The same cannot be said of the creeds of later centuries, when rationalism began to affect the processes by which faith was transmitted. While an element of rationality is appropriate for doctrinal teaching, the liturgy should cultivate the suggestive power of tradition.
If faith could be communicated by merely conceptual indoctrination, living tradition would hardly be necessary. But, as Blondel effectively showed, propositional statements do not suffice. “Tradition,” he says, “is not a simple substitute for a written teaching. It has a different purpose. . . . It preserves not so much the intellectual aspect of the past as its living reality.” In times of crisis, the Church can turn to her tradition to discover elements previously held back in the depths of her unconscious and practiced rather than expressed and systematized. The fallacy of explicitness, as Hitchcock remarks, “has been responsible for much liturgical impoverishment, since some liturgists (and some worshipers) appeared to assume that once the symbols had been ‘explained’ there was no longer any need for them.”
7. Tradition is transformative. Transmitted predominantly by symbolic actions and symbolic language, it acts on the psyche at a level more fundamental than reflective consciousness. In this way it helps to transform the believer into a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17; cf. Galatians 6:15)—a person who thinks, feels, speaks, and acts in new ways. Tradition instills in the community an instinctive sense of the faith.
The spontaneous practices and popular devotions of the faithful, while they lack the high authority that belongs to liturgy, constitute subsidiary avenues of tradition, reflecting the people’s sense of the faith. While popular religiosity must be critically evaluated for its authenticity, it will be carefully studied by the Church’s pastors for its hidden riches. Before defining dogmas such as the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, the popes consulted the sense of the faithful as manifested in devotional traditions.
Modernism exaggerated the authority of popular devotions, placing them on a par with liturgy as a locus of tradition. But in classical theology the lex orandi did not refer to spontaneous manifestations of popular piety but rather to the authorized liturgy of the Church as a whole.
8. Tradition is never static. Blondel protested that the sacred deposit is not an aerolith to be preserved in a glass case but a living and developing organism. Vatican II declared: “The tradition that comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. . . . For, as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their fulfillment in her.” Writing after the Council, Henri de Lubac agreed. “Tradition,” he said, “according to the Fathers of the Church, is in fact just the opposite of a burden of the past: It is a vital energy, a propulsive as much as a protective force.”
Tradition, however, does not grow by sudden leaps and does not radically reverse itself. It develops organically by successive and almost imperceptible modifications. Drastic innovation and abrupt change are antithetical to the genius of tradition and therefore also repugnant to liturgy as a prime instance of tradition.
9. In order to develop along the line of its original inspiration, tradition returns continually to its sources. As critics of art and literature often remark, creativity even in the secular sphere is enhanced by fidelity to traditions handed down from the past. The same is true a fortiori in the theological order, because tradition is the transmission of a divine revelation enshrined in inspired sources. Christian tradition draws its undying vitality from the power of the sources to disclose more than had previously been tapped. Reading sacred Scripture with the help of the same Spirit who inspired it, the Church finds new light for dealing with present problems. In this way Jesus fulfills his promise that the Paraclete would lead the disciples forward into the fullness of truth (John 16:13).
The continued vitality of the Christian sources manifests itself with special force in the liturgy, which is a memorial of the Paschal event. Liturgical worship, according to Frans Jozef van Beeck, is the activity in which “the Church draws closest to the mystery at its center.” In the ministry of word and sacrament Christ is present with singular power and density, bringing the faithful into direct contact with the redemptive mystery.
10. Tradition points forward to the Eschaton. Whereas tradition in its merely human aspect has a necessary reference to the past, Christian tradition has a future reference as well. It transmits the mystery of Christ, who is the Omega as well as the Alpha. It communicates the Holy Spirit, who is the eschatological gift. By receiving Christian tradition we are claimed for the Kingdom of God, inasmuch as the Church on earth is “the initial budding forth of the Kingdom.” The more deeply we immerse ourselves in the tradition, the more ineluctably are we borne toward the promised fullness of the Kingdom.
This eschatological aspect of tradition is verified eminently in the worship of the Church, which Vatican II described as a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy. It summons believers to look forward to Christ’s return in glory, bringing the Church to its consummation. The Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann has made this point emphatically. The essential function of the liturgy, for him, is “to realize the Church by revealing her (to herself and to the world) as the epiphany of the Kingdom of God.” The Church, since it belongs to the age to come, has as its proper function to bear witness to “the Eschaton—the Lordship of Christ until he comes.” Something of this same cosmic and eschatological perspective comes through in the passionate, contorted prose of Teilhard de Chardin, when he writes, for example, of “The Mass on the World.” Inspired by the ancient sources, Teilhard was able to perceive the Eucharist as an anticipatory sign of the eschatologically transformed universe.
These observations on tradition do not by themselves settle the debated questions about liturgy, but they provide some principles governing the reform and renewal of the Church’s official worship. To indicate some possible applications let me draw eight corollaries from what has already been said.
1. Liturgy is God’s gift before it is a human response. It is not something we freely construct according to our own ideas and preferences. As a preeminent form of tradition, it derives from the activity of God through Christ and the apostles. In the liturgy God turns to us, and we receive what he is pleased to give, especially the central mystery of our redemption through Jesus Christ.
2. In liturgy, as in other spheres of tradition, attention must be directed primarily to the reality that is transmitted. The symbols do not function rightly unless they focus our attention on their joint meaning. In this way it makes present the mystery of our redemption, which is too great to be contained in any words or symbols, but is communicated through them as instruments of the Holy Spirit. Liturgy celebrates the mysterion in a public way, in the context of new situations. The context, however, must not be allowed to become the theme, lest the liturgy cease to function as tradition.
3. In order to bring about interior union with the mystery being celebrated in it, liturgy should prayerfully invoke the Holy Spirit. Where this invocation is omitted, a false impression of human autonomy can easily arise. The symbols could be misinterpreted or manipulated according to an alien spirit.
4. Making use of its symbolic resources, liturgy should arouse a keen awareness of the truths of faith. Gestures such as the elevation of the host, bows, and genuflections convey the sense of the divine presence more powerfully than does explicit statement. For the dignity and public character of the liturgy, ritual gestures, vestments, sacred song, and periods of silence should be built into the conduct of worship. In the spoken parts of the liturgy, the language, as I have said, should be suggestive and not overly didactic.
5. Liturgy should be participatory in the sense that it induces the worshipers to interiorize the meanings it conveys and to make personal acts of faith, hope, and love. Vital participation in the mystery of redemption is enhanced by song, gesture, and movement on the part of the congregation. There is no need to choose between the objectivity of the given and the subjectivity of the response. The fidelity of the objective presentation enhances the depth and transformative quality of the response.
6. Pertaining as it does to divine and apostolic tradition, liturgy should be marked by stability. According to Vatican II, it should not be changed without real and manifest necessity. But it should not be static any more than tradition is. Its forms of expression should always take account of the needs and capacities of the worshiping community.
Adaptation does not mean, to be sure, that everything should be stated in plain vernacular English or conducted in a tone of familiarity. On the contrary, attention to the laws of worship may require a certain formality in style and language somewhat removed from ordinary speech. The need to evoke the sense of the sacred may also call for types of chant not heard in secular situations.
7. Because liturgy, like tradition in general, is a living reality, no one stage of its development should be absolutized. As Vatican II declared, undesirable accretions and anachronisms should be removed. Neither the fourth century, nor the thirteenth, nor the era of Trent, nor that of Vatican II represents the unsurpassable high point. Cardinal Ratzinger remarks that since the liturgy is alive, “the Missal can no more be mummified than the Church herself.”
Changes in the liturgy should, however, be gradual and organic. Possibly the new texts prepared after Vatican II departed too abruptly from recent tradition and were too harshly imposed. However that may be, these texts have by now won for themselves a certain right of existence. The Catholic faithful have became familiar with them. To banish them and demand a return to preconciliar texts could only provoke further disorientation and turmoil. The first requirement is for a more reverent and sensitive use of the texts and rubrics that we now have.
Since Vatican II much energy has gone into the composition of new liturgical texts, many of them unauthorized. The multiplication of new texts can easily become a distraction. It might be best for the present sacramentary to be kept in place for a reasonable period of years, with improved translations and minor corrections. In a highly secular society such as our own, attempts to compose sacred texts will often be less than successful.
8. The existing liturgy provides no lack of room for creativity, rightly understood. The choice of music, the preparation of the liturgical space, the composition of the homily and the intercessions all place heavy demands on the talents of those concerned. Spontaneity in formal liturgical celebrations should, however, be kept within bounds. Liturgy, as the chief embodiment of perennial tradition, should convey a sense of the objective, the constant, and the universal.
In this essay I may seem to have gravitated toward the otherworldly pole described at the start. If so, it is because liturgy is the principal bearer of a tradition that comes down without a break from Christ and the apostles, and is normative for the universal Church. As the most formal and public manifestation of tradition, liturgy calls attention to the objectively given, which remains the source of salvation everywhere and for all. It seeks to impart a sense of the divine and to bring the worshiper into the great mystery of our redemption.
Liturgy, however, is not the entire life of the Church. Other forms of traditional and spontaneous worship deserve to be encouraged. In private prayer and popular devotions the particular cultures and customs of diverse peoples, and their present concerns, can find suitable expression. Informality and originality may be encouraged in spontaneous prayer groups, processions, local shrines, popular religious art and music, family devotions, and the like.
The current crisis in liturgy, it would appear, is due in part to the withering away of various nonliturgical styles of piety (such as novena prayers, parish missions, eucharistic adoration, and the rosary) that sustained the faith and commitment of Catholics in the centuries before the Second Vatican Council. After the Council it became common to think that since the liturgy was central, all worship ought to be liturgical, even eucharistic. In the absence of alternatives, celebrants were tempted to bring an informal and spontaneous style into liturgy itself. Some priests seemed to be imitating popular entertainers and talk show hosts to the detriment of the solemnity and formality that by right pertained to liturgy. By promoting a revival of non-eucharistic and paraliturgical forms of piety and instruction, the Church could, I believe, help to safeguard the distinctive values of liturgical worship.
The total worship of the Church, we may say, includes both the formal and the informal. The two are dialectically related. Though not the same, they should reinforce each other. Liturgy, as formal worship, should always have a point of contact with the experience of the community lest it become sterile. Private devotions, though they emanate from popular experience, should always be kept in line with the objective form of revelation lest they become superstitious. But the proportions vary. Liturgy keeps the focus on the exalted mystery of the Transcendent, whereas popular piety gives greater attention to God’s accessibility in the here-and-now. Both styles of worship are appropriate because the God of Christian faith is neither absent from his people nor fully identifiable with them. Returning to the example with which I began, we may conclude that neither reading of the inscription on the banner in the parish church does justice to the mystery. God is neither other people nor does he dwell in remote seclusion.
Avery Dulles, S.J., holds the Laurence J. McGinley chair of Religion and Society at Fordham University. This essay is adapted from a talk given to the Society for Catholic Liturgy in Detroit on September 25, 1997.